This is your brain on music

A great bit of research conducted by neuroscientists at Columbia University for the PBS program NOVA looks at the emotional implications of music and what happens in your brain as you listen to your favorite song. Using the famous neuroscientist and writer Oliver Sacks as a test subject, researchers played Dr. Sacks two pieces of music while he lay in an fMRI scanner. The first was from his lifelong favorite composer, Bach, and the other was by Beethoven, a talented adversary, but one who didn't resonate with Sacks quite as much. While listening to both pieces, areas in the auditory cortex and other regions typically associated with music lit up as expected. However, during the Bach piece the amygdala was also activated, signifying the emotional connection Sacks felt to the music. Even at moments when Sacks could not identify which composer he was hearing, his brain still demonstrated greater emotional responding to the Bach pieces.

Music is a universal human characteristic. We are born with the innate ability to hear and appreciate it, and all cultures create and celebrate their own styles. Our speech reflects the cadence and intonations of our society's popular music, as do the cries of even very young infants. According to a new book out by Elena Mannes, The Power of Music, music activates more areas of our brain than any other sensory experience, ranging from the auditory and motor cortices, to the executive control center in the frontal cortex, to older subcortical structures and the cerebellum. In her book she cites examples of music being used as a tool in speech therapy for individuals who experience verbal aphasia after suffering from a stroke in the left temporal lobe (the language center in the brain), and music or singing has long been used as a therapeutic instrument for chronic stutterers (just see The King's Speech for brilliant performances by Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush).

Psychologists and neurologists have also begun using music as a form of therapy in a number of neurological disorders and are seeing encouraging results. In individuals with Parkinson's disease, music has proven to help patients with both their gross mobility and fine motor control. This phenomenon is wonderfully demonstrated in this video, where a man suffering from Parkinson's struggles to walk fluidly, jolting and hesitating across his living room. After putting on music though, his gait and demeanor entirely changes, and he triumphantly begins strutting and dancing around the room.

Dr. Sacks writes in his book Awakenings about patients suffering from encephalitis lethargica, or sleepy sickness, a rare disease with unknown origin, but believed to involve cells in the basal ganglia. This subcortical neural structure is involved in fine motor movements and is at the center of dopamine production in the brain. Patients with encephalitis lethargica demonstrate symptoms similar to patients with Parkinson's, as well as profound muscle weakness, catatonia and lethargy. In the 1960s Sacks discovered that encephalitis patients responded to treatment with L-DOPA, a precursor to dopamine used in Parkinson's patients to stimulate dopamine production and stimulate motor ability in the basal ganglia. However, Sacks also made the profound revelation that these same patients also responded to music, miraculously rousing them out of their catatonic state for a brief period to dance and sing.

The similarities between Parkinson's and encephalitis lethargica, both in their etiology and pathology, as well as their amazing assistance by music, suggests that the dopamine system is intrinsically involved in our experience and appreciation of music. One possible explanation is the ability of music to release endogenous dopamine into the brain via the cortico-striatal reward circuitry. However, many different stimuli have this ability, including food, sex, drugs and other hedonic pleasures, without having the therapeutic effects that music has in these patient populations. This suggests that there is something deeper and more inherent in the association between music and dopamine release that goes beyond pleasure, potentially implicating the motor system of the basal ganglia rather than the proximal nucleus accumbens, which is closely tied to reward. This could also explain why dancing is such a natural reaction to hearing beat or melody, as the movement could stem from the natural release of dopamine in the basal ganglia.

The powerful effect of music on the brain, with its broad reaching activations and emotional and physical implications, suggests that there is something very special about our relationship to it, and should be pursued as a potential source of therapy in other dopamine deficient disorders, such as drug addiction or depression.

Dana Smith

PhD student in Experimental Psychology at the University of Cambridge